This Origami-Inspired Robot Hand Can Pick Up Almost Anything
Matthew Greenwood posted on April 03, 2019 |

MIT’s origami-inspired robot hand at work.

No matter how intelligent or adaptive robots are today, they still have a hard time picking up objects with their clunky, rigid fingers—which then limits them to working only in very structured environments with objects of the same shape and placement.

A team of engineers from MIT and Harvard may have discovered a solution. They have developed a versatile new gripper named the Magic Ball: a cone-shaped origami structure that envelops objects, molding to their shape before lifting them. The gripper moves like a Venus flytrap, and is able to pick up items that are many times heavier than itself. By collapsing around its target, the gripper can pick up a wide variety of objects, from machine parts to wine glasses, to fruits and vegetables.


“With the Magic Ball gripper system, we’ve shown that we can do pick-and-place tasks for a large variety of items […] objects that are delicate, or sturdy, or that have regular or free-form shapes,” says MIT Professor Daniela Rus, one of the senior authors of a new paper about the project.

The gripper consists of three parts: a skeletal structure that can fold like origami, an airtight skin made of a rubber balloon or a thin fabric, and a connector. It was created using a rubber mold and a plastic that shrinks and self-folds at high temperatures.

The team tested the gripper’s strength with encouraging results: it can gently grasp and lift objects that are 70 percent of its diameter, such as soft foods, without causing damage. It could also pick up hard objects such as bottles.

(Image courtesy of MIT.)

(Image courtesy of MIT.)

Though, the gripper has its drawbacks. While it can easily pick up cylindrical objects like bottles or cans, its shape makes it difficult for it to grasp something it can’t easily envelop, like a flat book. The team hopes to solve this shortcoming by giving it a computer-aided visual sensor that would let the gripper pick a specific part of the object so it could grip it easier.

This development could lead to the creation of robots that are gentle and dexterous enough to pick a flower or lift a hospital patient with equal care. “Nature has so many more shapes, and the built environment has so many more shapes, and so it’s interesting to think about the possibilities,” said Rus.

Read more about using origami to design robots at Origami Inspires Folding, Reconfigurable Antennas for Satellites and Electromagnetic Cloaking.


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